Immunotherapy for Lung Cancer

Immunotherapy is a relatively new tool in the lung-cancer-fighting toolbox, but it's showing great promise in helping keep cancer in check, or under good control, for years.

Some advanced lung cancer patients being treated by Seattle Cancer Care Alliance (SCCA) medical oncologists at EvergreenHealth are living years longer and living better thanks to immunotherapy.

What is immunotherapy?

Immunotherapy is treatment that uses your own immune system to fight cancer. It boosts or changes how your immune system works, so it can find and attack cancer cells.

This class of drugs, which first received FDA approval in 2015, is called immune checkpoint inhibitors.

How does immunotherapy work?

When lung cancer starts growing, the cells of your tumor don't look normal to the rest of your body. But they try to hide from your immune system by coating themselves and nearby tissues with something called PD-L1. That way, your immune system doesn't recognize them, and doesn't attack them.

But immune checkpoint inhibitors pull off that PD-L1 "invisibility cloak". Now your immune system can better see your cancer cells, and go after and attack all the different abnormal parts that it sees.

One of the reasons why immunotherapy works particularly well for some lung cancer patients is because lung cancers typically have a lot of defects and mutations, such as odd bumps and uneven surfaces. That creates many targets for immune checkpoint inhibitors and your own immune system to go after, once that "invisibility cloak" is pulled off.


How are immunotherapy drugs administered?

Immunotherapy drugs are given through an IV infusion at the Halvorson Cancer Center. They typically are given in two-to-three week cycles, with each period of treatment followed by a rest period to allow your body to regain strength.

For your comfort, the infusion center's 21 treatment suites offer private rooms and treatment bays with garden views, heated comfortable recliners and a nourishment center filled with healthy snacks.

Most of the treatment suites offer your own TV to watch. You can also listen to your favorite music on your headphones or ear buds.

What are the possible side effects of immunotherapy?

The most concerning side effects of immunotherapy has to do with the drugs themselves. In about 10% of patients, immune checkpoint inhibitors can accidentally trigger your immune system to start attacking other healthy parts of your body.

Other side effects can include:

  • fatigue
  • nausea
  • coughing
  • skin issues, such as itching or rash
  • constipation or diarrhea
  • muscle, bone or joint pain

It’s very important to report any new side effects to your medical oncologist as soon as possible. If serious side effects do occur, treatment may need to be stopped and you may get high doses of corticosteroids to help suppress your immune system.

Immunotherapy can help boost lung cancer cure rates

Immunotherapy drugs can be used along with radiation or chemotherapy, or both, depending on the type and stage of your lung cancer.

Our expert SCCA medical oncologists at EvergreenHealth say that doing so can, in some cases, and for some cancers, boost cure rates by 15% when a specific immune therapy is continued for a full year after treatment ends.

Are there new immunotherapy drugs on the horizon?

Because immunotherapy is still a relatively new treatment for both early and late-stage lung cancer, new drugs are regularly being developed and tested. You may be able to take part in a clinical trial involving new immunotherapies for lung cancer.

Seattle Cancer Care Alliance (SCCA) has one of the most active clinical trial programs in the world  and you will have access to these promising new treatments, through our partnership with SCCA.

Even better, the trials are administered by SCCA right here at EvergreenHealth’s Halvorson Cancer Center – eliminating the need to battle traffic into SCCA’s Seattle headquarters. Learn more about clinical trials

Learn more about your treatment options for lung cancer:

Medical Oncology
Radiation Oncology
Gene Therapy
Clinical Trials